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Questioning Ericksonian Hypnotherapy

by Tim Brunson, PhD

Just about every aspect of human communication alters the frequency of a person's brainwaves and results in various parts of the brain activating, idling, or being inhibited. When this results in a type of focused attention during which certain mental resistances are reduced and selective imagination is enhanced, we can say that a hypnotic process has occurred. Clearly, this can happen on purpose when a skilled clinical – or stage – operator communicates with the intention of creating such a result. However, the truth is that this happens unintentionally all the time. When a hypnotic process is in employed for the express purpose of achieving a desired secondary gain – such as improving health or happiness, as well as achieving self-actualization – we can regard it hypnotherapy. But, does every endeavor that produces a hypnotic effect warrant the label "hypnotherapy" or its recognition as a new school of hypnotherapy ? Such is the case when considering what is popularly called Ericksonian Hypnotherapy.

Ericksonian Hypnotherapy is a relatively recent phenomenon. With just over a half a century of documentation – as compared to the many centuries of tradition and history involving hypnosis – its adherents have dogmatically decided that the entire universe of hypnosis is now limited to the teachings of the psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson, MD. What they seem to be implying is that the voluminous works of Mesmer, Charcot, Easdaile, Bernheim, Elman, and McGill, half of whom had either medical or psychology credentials, are now irrelevant. Indeed, two significant organizations have sprung up espousing adulations for Dr. Erickson's theories – and myths – all the while mistakenly and simplistically relegating the rest of the hypnosis world to what they somewhat erroneously call "authoritative hypnosis." Furthermore, the leaders of these somewhat elitist organizations go so far as dedicating multiple Web pages decrying the invalidity of those who don't meet their other-than-hypnotherapy qualifications – all the while sophomorically promoting the fact that their brand of hypnosis is "all you'll ever need."

The essential issue here is that there a need to finally address whether what has come to be called Ericksonian Hypnotherapy actually deserves to be called such. If you read any of the number of books authored or co-authored by Erickson, or the many follow-on works by prominent authors and talented psychotherapists such as Ernest Rossi, PhD, Bill O'Hanlon, LMFT, Stephen Gilligan, PhD, and many others, it is easy to come to the conclusion that first and foremost Erickson – who was a psychiatrist – was a naturalistic psychotherapist. He taught a particular brand of linguistic techniques, which utilized many factors of his patient's current experience to interfere with established dysfunctional patterns and then allowed the patient to discover new ones that better integrated their lives. This was done with or without the hypnosis process.

Many of Erickson's techniques did create a hypnotic effect. That is, they reduced resistance and allowed the patient to resolve their problem through selective thinking. Like what the Ericksonians erroneously call "authoritative hypnosis," these methods also could produce a state of attention and focus that is typically labeled as a trance state. (The methods used to produce this state can be referred to as an induction.) Therefore, as a trance frequently occurred, this led to the belief that Erickson's methods must therefore be some type of hypnotherapy. Furthermore, as hypnotic trances occur through the use of Erickson's methods, they claim that this must be "real hypnosis." Anything else that heretofore created trance state then should be marginalized.

My core question here is whether what is known as Ericksonian Hypnotherapy should be better described as a system of psychotherapy, which occasionally and inadvertently creates a hypnotic trance. If so, it would be in great company. Just consider the plethora of psychotherapeutic techniques available to clinicians today. These include a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms such as EMDR, EFT, TAT, TFT, and NLP, as well as other numerous coined and often trademarked techniques. Does the fact that EMDR practitioners can easily create a hypnotic state justify them calling their field "EMDR Hypnotherapy?" I think not. Otherwise, other non-clinical communicators who often create hypnosis in their subjects could likewise pick up the moniker. Just think. We could have "political hypnotherapists" getting elected to Congress and experience "religious hypnotherapists" preaching from their pulpits each and every Sunday morning. This is probably as ridiculous as psychologists trying to tell me that they are "certified" as hypnotherapists after they have completed a quick weekend or a 40-hour course in "Ericksonian Hypnotherapy."

Why do I even bother with pursuing this line of questioning? In fact, isn't this a just another sacred cow protected by many prominent licensed psychologists? The issue that I have with the elitist usurpation of the term "hypnotherapy" by a select few is that too much of the potential benefit of hypnosis is being denied the general public. Yes, these elitists promote their rather limited set of gospels and proclaim their forebears as heretics and incorrectly label non-adherent hypnosis practitioners with the moniker of laity – despite the fact that it is these hypnotic operators – not their detractors – who meet the dictionary definition of professionals.

So, what is the benefit that is being unjustly denied others? If you look at the essence of hypnosis as being a process that overcomes resistance and allows more efficient selective thinking you will see where my logic is taking me. Once we get resistance out of the way, the realm of possibilities is staggering. These possibilities involve the three areas that I frequently talk about. They are: health, happiness, and self-actualization – or healing the body, healing the mind, and enhancing performance. What the Ericksonians focus on is only one of these areas, namely healing the mind. And, they do so with only a limited set of hypnotherapeutic skills. In fact, the vast non-Ericksonian hypnosis world consists of multitude of techniques that produce results in situations which the famous psychiatrist's techniques would clearly not suffice.

Here is an example of my frustration dealing with died-in-the-wool Ericksonians. A few years ago I met a colleague who was presenting a workshop of hypnosis at a major conference. His talk predominately covered the use of Ericksonian linguistic techniques to address chronic pain as part of his psychology practice. (He was the current president of his state's Ericksonian Society.) Later a mutual acquaintance introduced us. During the ensuing conversation I asked him what techniques he would recommend for a patient with acute pain in an emergency room. The only response that I got was a blank stare. I then asked him which of the Elman techniques he would use in that setting. His response was "Who is Elman?" This professional psychologist called himself a hypnotherapist despite his limited training in the field.

Even though a professional may choose to use various trance-producing or non-trance- producing hypnotic processes for one of the three areas, I would not go so far as to call them hypnotherapists although I would call their process hypnotherapy. Over the years I have trained many medical doctors, nurses, and psychotherapists on how to use hypnosis in their practices. They are not, however, hypnotherapists. Rather, they are respected professionals in their respective fields, who now have some excellent hypnosis training. On the other hand, when I regard a person as a hypnotherapist, I should be able to expect that they have an in depth training and developed a significant competency in a multitude of techniques, which addresses all three areas. Thus a hypnotherapist should ideally have adequate training in physiology, psychology – which does not justify calling themselves medical doctors or psychologists – and coaching, as well as in a wide range of hypnosis techniques and subjects such as neurology and quantum theory. There is a distinct difference. So, for a limited number of elitist psychotherapists to insist that their field is the preferred and exclusive field of hypnotherapy lacks considerable wisdom.

Regardless of my misgivings about how a cult has emerged around the memory and brilliant innovative theories of Dr. Erickson, I will continue studying and teaching his methods. I find that they are a significant contribution to the world of psychotherapy. Where his techniques elegantly produce the hypnotic process, I feel that they have tremendous value. Indeed, I incorporate his teachings in my Advance Neuro-Noetic HypnosisTM scripts. Likewise, I relish his contributions and impact on how legitimate hypnotherapy is practiced and see these as mandatory topics for any professional hypnotherapist training. Nevertheless, I see Erickson's thoughts and ideas predominantly in a school of psychotherapy, which has significant hypnotherapeutic implications rather than intrinsically as a school of hypnotherapy.

Posted: 01/21/2011

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